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Is It Proper For Children To Call Their Parents’
Friends Or Other Adults By Their First Names?

 

Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet
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I think we have to be mindful of modern trends – albeit within reason. On one end of the spectrum I encounter too many today who refer to their own parents by their first names, which is wholly unacceptable and halachically wrong. Inasmuch as parents can choose to get very close to their children, they are never their best friend – that crosses the respect barrier.

On the other end of the spectrum, people used to call their friends’ parents “Mr” or “Mrs” and a close adult family friend would be referred to as “uncle” or “aunt.” Today, that is hardly the case and if adults are happy to be called by their first names, I think there’s nothing wrong in dispensing with formality.

Does it reflect a certain breakdown of respect in civilization altogether? Absolutely, but that’s another matter.

– Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, popular Lubavitch lecturer, rabbi of London’s Mill Hill Synagogue.

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Rabbi Marc D. Angel

In traditional hierarchical societies, children are taught to respect their elders. Children defer to the authority of adults. They do not exhibit undue familiarity by calling elders by first name. Such behavior is considered to be very bad manners. Calling someone by first name assumes an equality of status.

When I grew up, we never referred to elders by first name – even if they were close friends of our parents. We would call them “uncle” or “aunty” or just not call them by name at all. It would have been unthinkable to call an adult by their first name.

But those days of my childhood are long gone. General society has moved away from the traditional hierarchical model. Children grow up thinking that it’s fine to call everyone by first name – even their teachers, and sometimes even their own parents. While I bristle at these things, I also realize that society has become increasingly “egalitarian” where everyone feels entitled to equal treatment and equal respect.

I personally believe society is better served when children learn to refer to elders respectfully, not by first names. There should be social boundary lines between children and adults.

However, it is ultimately up to parents to teach their children proper behavior. In some circles, people feel that it’s fine for children to call elders by first name. They think that a more egalitarian spirit should prevail in relationships between children and adults.

While we each have our own opinions on the topic, it is really up to each family to determine what is most appropriate for them.

– Rabbi Marc D. Angel, director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

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Rabbi Zev Leff

In the world we live in, one of the sad developments is that many think that democracy means that there is no respect for authority, no discipline, and no one can tell you anything that offends you even if it is constructive criticism. And one can choose to be or do anything even if it defies nature.

In such a society, teaching children from a young age to respect adults, to respect authority and to accept discipline and constructive criticism is essential, as these are solid Torah values. Hence, calling adults in a respectful manner and not calling them by name is one means of engendering respect in our youth. If, however, the friends of the family are so close as to be like family itself, perhaps calling them Uncle or Auntie so and so would be proper.

– Rabbi Zev Leff, rav of Moshav Matisyahu, popular lecturer and educator

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When I first moved to Israel, one of the cultural elements that I found – and still find – difficult to accept is the widespread use of first names when speaking with respected members of an older generation. Students call teachers by their first names. People call their aunts and uncles and even their in-laws by their first names. My wife and I have trained our children to address aunts and uncles with an honorific before their name – “Dod” or “Dodah,” “Aunt” of “Uncle.” But across the landscape this is the exception, not the rule.

I suspect that this element of Israeli culture may be rooted in the socialist ideas that were prominent in the early years of the state. Part of the ideology was to eliminate social hierarchies and authority structures. In some settings, children even called their parents by their first names! It goes without saying that children should never refer to their parents, and students should never refer to their Torah teachers, by their first name.

Beyond that, I have two rules of thumb that I think serve well in these contexts.

The first, which I learned from my parents and try to instill within my children, is to always address an adult with an honorific (Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., Rabbi, etc.) – even the parent of a friend or friend of a parent – until that adult gives explicit permission to use the first name. (E.g., “Oh, stop! Mrs. Schwartz is my mother-in-law! Call me Rachel.”)

The second is that in a context that warrants respect, go back to the honorifics. Meaning, for example, it’s okay to call a doctor by their first name with permission, but in a hospital or clinical setting, or in front of colleagues, revert to “Dr.” I often speak in shuls where the rabbi and I are on a first-name basis, but I would never refer to him by first name alone in the presence of congregants.

– Rabbi Elli Fischer is a translator, writer, and historian. He edits Rav Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha in English, cofounded HaMapah, a project to quantify and map rabbinic literature, and is a founding editor of Lehrhaus. Follow him @adderabbi on Twitter or listen to his podcast, “Down the Rabbi Hole.”

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